Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Eugene Peterson

November 1, 2018

Gene Peterson died yesterday. If I didn’t know him well, it was because I didn’t get enough time. Gene was extremely easy to know, even though he was hopeless at small talk. When the situation required it, he would just grin. He had a terrific smile and a lovely gangly way. He was generous at heart and could say difficult things in a way that wasn’t aimed angrily at anybody.

He was distressed by what he saw in the American evangelical church. This quote from his New York Times obituary expresses a lot of it:  “American culture is probably the least Christian culture that we’ve ever had, because it’s so materialistic and it’s so full of lies. The whole advertising world is just intertwined with lies, appealing to the worst instincts we have. The problem is, people have been treated as consumers for so long they don’t know any other way to live.”

He loved small churches, struggling churches. He loved the Pentecostal churches he grew up in because they were fervent in their faith and humble in their self-image. That was Gene, fervent and humble.

Also smart. He had studied the deep books. Yet he talked like an ordinary person.

I encountered him first as a reader, through his wonderful book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Later we were fellow members of the Chrysostom society, a group of writers that met annually. Popie and I hit it off with him and his wife Jan, and one summer we visited them overnight in Montana. They fed us bountifully, sent us off in kayaks on the beautiful lake where they lived, and treated us like they thought we were genuinely important guests who had favored them with a visit. This was so upside down it confused us!

I didn’t get enough time. I suspect a lot of people would say that.

 

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Breathe Deep and Practice Kindness

July 17, 2018

We went to see the Mr. Rogers movie this week (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) and learned that Fred was an uncanny person—no different in real life than on TV—who remembered vividly the vulnerabilities children feel. He had been a bullied fat kid himself. Deeply dedicated to kindness, he set out to use a medium not known for kindness—television–as a national service to comfort children.

I found the movie very touching, particularly because I’ve half-forgotten that kindness is normal. If Mr. Rogers seems weird—and sometimes he does–it’s because our world has gotten so weird.

This was the message behind my niece Libby Echeverria’s “Perspective” on our local public radio station. It’s a lovely piece, worth hearing. She describes a series of encounters in her neighborhood coffee shop: an interracial gathering of young men comparing tattoos, and a homeless man who wanders in brandishing a feather. She half-expected trouble, but in fact, she was surprised to see people treating each other with dignity and thoughtfulness. The young men pulled out Bibles and launched into a study of Philippians. An older man got a chair for the homeless man. “I realized that through breathing the toxic air of our country these days, I have developed an unconscious bias that I can’t trust people to do the right thing. I am on edge….”

Mass media and politics and social media bring out the troll in us. We need to breathe deep and practice kindness. Or so Mr. Rogers would tell us.

 

Persistence of Light

June 21, 2018

I just finished reading John Hoyte’s memoir, Persistence of Light. As many of you know, I have been on a bandwagon urging people to write their memoirs—I am beginning to write my own–and John’s work gives me an excellent reason to carry on the crusade. The only problem is that the events of John’s life are so extraordinarily interesting, compared to anybody else’s, they may intimidate the rest of us.

At the risk of simplification I will divide Persistence of Light into three parts of interest: Japanese prison camp, Hannibal’s elephant, and everything else. First, Japanese prison camp.

John grew up in China as the child of missionary parents. His father, a medical doctor, seems to have been of that enterprising, open-minded, omni-capable type you still run into in far-off parts of the world. With such a parent, John and his five siblings lived lives of considerable adventure—sometimes self-initiated, as when the whole family spontaneously got into a rowboat and rowed out to a British cruiser that had anchored off the coast. Some of their adventures came unbidden, since China was at war with Japan, and Communists were fighting Nationalists. China was a dangerous place, though John’s parents insulated their children from most fears.

However, in 1940 John’s parents were called to an emergency hospital assignment 1,300 miles inland. They left their six children at the coastal boarding school they were attending at Chefoo. When war with Japan erupted in 1941, the students were put into a prison camp, along with other resident aliens, adults as well as children. This was the same prison camp where Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, was imprisoned and died of a brain tumor. John knew him well, for Liddell took a great interest in the camp’s children.

The prison camp inmates were not tormented or abused, but they suffered from hunger and cold and crowding. The worst deprivation for John was parental. He was eight years old when his mother and father left for inland China, and he was not to see them for five years. During the war, they had almost no communication. John’s older siblings were with him, but life in both boarding school and prison camp kept them mostly separated. Then, as the final blow, came news that his mother had died. It was unthinkably devastating. He would never see her again.

John’s telling of liberation at the hands of American soldiers is extraordinarily exhilarating. Then came the slow and confusing reestablishment of ordinary life—finding their father in turbulent, chaotic post-war China, returning to an England they hardly knew, and finding their way without the guiding light of their mother. John’s early years were both extraordinarily stimulating and joyful—with music and art and adventure—and horrifyingly traumatic. It is a hopeful reminder that trauma is not destiny. He emerged, somehow, as a bright, curious, open-minded and adventurous man, a leader who organized teams around his (sometimes) eccentric vision.

That brings us to Hannibal’s elephant. While at Cambridge University, John developed an interest in the controversies surrounding the route Hannibal took over the Alps with his elephants, invading Rome. Several possibilities were hotly debated. John, studying the ancient documents, got a small university grant to take a student team to climb the relevant passes and see for themselves. A few years later, when John was in the working world, he was inspired to borrow an elephant from the Turin zoo, and recreate (sort of) Hannibal’s epic journey. It was an inspired stunt that got him a seven-page feature in Life Magazine, and an appearance on the well-known TV show To Tell the Truth, where he won $500, more than doubling his life savings. He tells the whole adventure in great detail.

Such an expedition may be a lark, but it requires a lot of thoughtful organization and leadership. This is somewhat typical of John: he has quirky inspirations that require others’ participation, and the leadership skills to bring a team together.

Part three, “everything else,” centers on John’s career in Silicon Valley, where he joined Hewlett Packard in its generous early days, and later launched his own start-up. That business, though it never flew to the moon in the way that storied Silicon Valley start-ups did, survives to the present day. Leading a start-up is not altogether unlike taking an elephant over the Alps, it seems.

In the same period, John’s interest in philosophical  and religious questions, in art and literature and music, opened him up to the San Francisco cultural scene, from the Beats, to the hippies, to the Vietnam rebels. Mostly, it appears, he was inspired to listen and learn. His wife Alma had been to Francis Schaeffer’s l’Abri, a refuge for religious searchers in the Swiss Alps. Imitating that, she and John organized eclectic weekly gatherings in their home. They opened their lives to many diverse people, including, for one Christmas meal, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.

I am leaving out quite a number of interesting vignettes, including the tragic death of Alma to cancer, and John’s subsequent—and sudden!—marriage to the poet Luci Shaw. Very few people have so many interesting things to write about. That, truthfully, is what makes Persistence of Light attractive to people who don’t know John.

Given that most people have less fascinating material to work with, should they write a memoir? I believe so. I’m motivated by the fact that my maternal grandfather, William Sutherland, dictated a 20-page memoir late in life. I only wish he had left us ten times as much. My own parents wrote nothing, and I am left with questions that I now have no one to ask.

You don’t know exactly what may come out when you sit down with a blank sheet. Whatever appears, however, will have an audience. Your children and grandchildren may not immediately find your thoughts of interest, but sooner or later somebody will want to know what the old coot had to say. And what more important things are you doing, than passing on your memories, your thoughts, your values and your faith?

Persistence of Light by John Hoyte is available at Amazon.com.

The Worth of a Man

September 1, 2017

I met Michael Navin when I was assigned as his “coach” at the Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa, California. That meant meeting with him weekly to talk about his progress in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program called New Life. Michael was older than most, already in his sixties. He was short, slight and graying, and extremely quiet. Most of the time we met in the copy room, squeezed in next to boxes and office machines.

It was hard to get much information from Michael. He was depressed, and he had reasons to be. He had already been in New Life for over a year, in what is meant to be a 10-month program. To graduate, you have to jump through some hoops, including reciting several memorized passages from the Bible. Every time I raised the question of graduation, Michael said, without elaboration, that he wasn’t ready. That seemed to mean that he couldn’t memorize anything. His brain was fuzzy, and nothing would stick.

Occasionally somebody on staff would ask me about Michael. There was a sense that he was taking up space that somebody else could use to gain sobriety. Nobody pushed Michael, however, and he wasn’t easy to push. He had that gift of silent stubbornness you may remember from Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He didn’t explain or elaborate. He just said, repeatedly, that he wasn’t ready.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was terrified. And why not? What can a man do in his sixties, who has no obvious skills, who is extremely reticent, who has no money, and whose resume for the past year shows that he has been in an alcohol and drug rehab run by a gospel mission? So long as he could stay at the mission, he was safe. If he graduated, his prospects were dire. Michael saw no chance of employment. He did not want to sleep on the sidewalk.

As I got to know him better, I learned that Michael had gone to UCLA on a golf scholarship and played for several years on the PGA tour. Later he worked as a manager overseeing several liquor stores. He had previously been through a long residential program with the Salvation Army, and afterwards had been sober for years. He came from a very strong Christian family, and he was very loyal to and appreciative of his church. Not only did he attend every Sunday, he went to a men’s Bible study. People there knew him well.

Michael had a lot going for him: family, church, education. He was a steady worker. He just couldn’t stay sober.

Then a close friend of mine, Jim Bankson, offered Michael work scanning documents. It paid minimum wage, and most of the men at the mission wouldn’t have lasted a day at it. The tedium would kill them. But I had watched Michael doing the laundry every day. Sheets and towels for thirty guests, plus the regular laundry of the men in New Life–that meant a lot of tedium, but Michael didn’t seem to mind. He kept at it, day after day, and I knew if he could do that, he could feed documents into a scanner.

That job changed Michael’s life. He managed to graduate and after an initial period of adjustment settled down into eight hours a day of scanning. He could listen to his beloved San Francisco Giants on the radio while he worked. He walked a mile to work from the halfway house he moved into. The exercise did him good. His paycheck wasn’t much, but he didn’t have many expenses, either. He was visibly more confident, more communicative and more hopeful.

That went on for a couple of years. After Michael’s mother died in Florida he got a small inheritance that enabled him to buy a used car. We had lunch every week or two, and he wanted to treat me. He became a volunteer driver for a gospel mission program that took homeless people to eat and sleep in local churches. It meant being on the road before 6:00 every morning, but Michael was happy doing it. He was very appreciative of what people had done for him, and he wanted to return the favor.

Then, without warning, he stopped returning my calls. He canceled our lunch plans several times. The halfway house he’d been living in was closing, and Michael wasn’t sure where he could live. He was out of sorts. Jim called me; he was worried.

Michael called me from the hospital. He’d taken a fall and broken his hip. In the fall his phone was damaged; for some reason, my phone number was the only one that survived in the phone’s memory. He sounded quite disoriented. I later found out that he’d been living in a cheap motel that rented rooms by the week. He’d been going to bars because he was lonely and he wanted to meet women. Eventually he fell down drunk outside his motel room, crawled inside, and lay on the floor for three days before he was discovered and taken by ambulance to the hospital. He’d been drinking the whole time, on the floor, to numb the pain.

Fortunately, because of his job, he had health insurance. The doctors operated and he was transferred to a rehab facility. I visited him several times and we talked about what had gone wrong. He regained his cheerfulness and seemed hopeful that he could recover, though he was worried about where he would live. A cousin was working on finding a place. Jim let Michael know that he could come back to work whenever he was physically able. Michael was working at getting out of his wheelchair and learning to navigate life with a walker. His situation seemed hopeful.

Next thing I knew he was dead. His body was discovered in another motel, where he’d evidently drunk himself to death. He’s moved in after leaving another halfway house. He wasn’t in the motel too many days before a clerk tried to rouse him and then called 911.

Michael’s death shook me. It seemed like a terrible waste and a complete failure, and from a certain perspective it was. It didn’t have to end that way. He was given a good chance. People were cheering for him. But somehow he couldn’t manage it. Alcohol and loneliness apparently had too tight a grip on his soul.

As time has passed–six months now–I’ve found my view changing. People have highs and lows, victories and defeats. Michael ended on a very low note, but maybe that’s just an accident of when the music stopped. His death certainly shadows the rest of his life, but it isn’t the final summation.

When I think of him, I remember his little wistful smile, as though he knew a secret joke. I remember his unassuming manner, how humbly he let people into his life. There was good reason why people liked Michael, and why such a surprising number appeared at his memorial service. In all his struggles, he wanted to do right, and your heart went out to him.

Michael’s faith was genuine, if faltering, and I have no doubt that I will see him in the renewal. He was my friend; and so he will be.

 

Addiction

April 14, 2015

Today I had a conversation with a friend about somebody he loves very much. She is struggling with herself and that makes her difficult to live with. He wants—for his own sake as well as hers—for her to snap out of it. He doesn’t understand why she continues to make bad decisions. She knows what she ought to do—why doesn’t she do it?

He is a recovering addict, so he knows addiction very well. Nevertheless I had to spell it out to him: sin is an addiction.

Like addictive substances, it has a short-term appeal. It meets a need. It may even make us temporarily happy. But of course, the long-term is very destructive. As with heroin, so with sin.

Also as with heroin, we may know perfectly well what we ought to do, but the pull of addiction is too strong for us. We are all perpetrators, but we are also all victims.

How Much Drive is Enough? How Much Drive Is Too Much?

March 19, 2015

Last week I saw two excellent movies on back to back evenings: Whiplash, and McFarland, USA. They could not be more different. McFarland is a terrifically warm, feel-good movie, and you’re never in doubt that you’re headed for a happy ending. Whiplash makes you nervous from beginning to end, and you’re not sure of its direction even when it’s over. It’s the most intellectually stimulating movie I’ve seen in a long time, something nobody would say about McFarland.

Yet both movies probe the same question: how much motivation do you need to succeed in life, and is there a point where it’s self-destructive?

McFarland is about a small central valley picker town, and a group of Mexican kids dragged out of themselves by the semi-desperate leadership of a failed football coach who is reduced to cross-country. The kids aren’t sure there’s any future for them, apart from the same farm labor their parents do. Cross-country helps them find their competitive spirit. They are used to hard work, and when they are motivated toward a goal, great things are accomplished. They win the state title.

The message is: those kids need something to motivate them. A loser coach and a loser sport do the trick. Yeah, it’s a sports movie. I loved it. (It doesn’t hurt that all my kids ran cross-country.)

Incidentally, in my county some anonymous donors have been buying tickets for local kids, a nice gesture meant, I assume, to motivate them. (Maybe it’s a cross-country coach.)

Whiplash is about a middle-class kid with lots going for him. He has a loving father and a caring girlfriend, and he’s been admitted to the best music school in America. But he’s fiercely competitive—he practices drums until his hands bleed—and he’s eaten alive by an abusive teacher who’s trying to produce the next Charley Parker. The kid knows that Charley Parker died in drug-induced squalor, but he buys the program—he’ll happily die in his own snot if he reaches jazz nirvana and plays on that level. His teacher eggs him on, torments him, verbally and physically abuses him. Through much of the movie you feel sorry for the kid, and you hope the teacher gets what’s coming to him, but in the end you realize that the kid is drawn to the teacher like a moth to a flame. He wants success so much that he invites abuse—anything for motivation.

(Incidentally, when I asked my son the Olympic rower about the movie, he said that the teacher didn’t seem that bad to him. Which says something about Olympic training, I think.)

I think everybody would agree that we need motivation. Inspiring teachers and coaches and parents supply it. And abusive ones, too. How much is enough? How much is too much? This is a constant question in parenting—especially since, in the modern era, teachers and coaches have little opportunity for abuse. But parents? Lots of wiggle room. Will we be Tiger parents? Or will we be affirming parents? Will we raise ultra-successful neurotics? Or will we raise happy slackers?

I never had an abusive boss or teacher, my parents were of the hands-off, encouraging type who thought I did just fine, and I think I turned out okay. I’m not exactly a slacker. However, I’m not very driven, either, at least compared to some whom I know well. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have accomplished more with a more driven approach. It wasn’t naturally in me, but maybe it could have been pounded into me. Whiplash suggests that without somebody to pound it into you, you’ll never be the next Charley Parker. Maybe so. Do you want to be?

The Case Against Assisted Suicide

February 4, 2015

We are once again experiencing a wave of heartfelt appeals for assisted suicide. Two reasons for it are usually cited. One is that a prolonged death is painful and horrifying; the other that a person’s individual autonomy includes the right to choose when to die.

Against the first reason stands hospice, which enlists both medical science and personal compassion to ensure that death is not painful or horrifying. Many people have awful ideas about the process of dying, but hospice is extraordinarily effective in alleviating suffering and indeed encouraging a sense of meaningful care. Nobody has to have a dreadful death. On the contrary, as many, many families who have relied on hospice can testify, my own included.

Take that fear away, and the argument is really about suicide. Is it an acceptable option? Should each individual choose whether to go on living at any moment?

One strong argument against assisted suicide is the “assisted” part. It is impossible to be sure that relatives, doctors or friends are not giving a sad and frightened person a little push; not just assisting but enabling. There exist many reasons why those closest to the concerned person may want to get on with it—financial reasons, emotional reasons. None of those should be reasons to end a life, but under what regime of safeguards can we be sure they are not in fact the true underlying motives? Older people are often obsessed with “not being a burden.” It might not take more than a slight suggestion, a mere tone of voice, to convince them that they would be less of a burden if they put an end to themselves.

But suppose you hedged in the act of assisted suicide with laws that made it unlikely for such suggestions to overwhelm a person’s choice. Then you have the question of suicide, period. Is there a right to suicide?

If you have had any involvement with someone who ended their life, you know the horrible ripping it does to the fabric of family and society. It is a terrible act of violence that does not affect just the one who ends their life; it changes everybody, forever. Of course it is most violent when done by the young, but who is to say it is benign when done by someone old or sick? This is not to blame the suicide—but it is to suggest that we ought never to encourage self-inflicted death, and always to put as many barriers in the way as we can, at any age and in any condition. In this we are voting not just for the life of the potential suicide, but for the life of the community he or she will leave behind in the wake of choice.

Ultimately, we face a fundamental clash of values in assisted suicide. Do we love life, all of life? Or do we love autonomy more? Life is what comes to us: we open our eyes on it each day, not knowing what great or awful things it will hold. We do not choose life, only how to respond to it. Autonomy, when held as the highest value, asserts that life is material for us to mold, or not to mold. We can turn off the game any time we like. In the final analysis, the choice of values is about God. Who rules? Someone or Something who gives life, and to whom we owe a response? Or Me, the Maker and Destroyer of Worlds?

People will commit suicide, with or without the assistance of others. We cannot help that, and they are our fellow human beings, to be treated with compassion.  I would never, however, pave the path for their self-inflicted death.

New Birth

January 14, 2015

The week after Christmas I got to hold my newborn grandson, Micah. He was less than a week old when I met him, and at that age babies don’t make eye contact. Yet Micah seemed to be looking around in every direction, trying to make sense of what he saw and heard and felt. After all, it was all new. Until a few days before he had never taken a breath, swallowed a mouthful of milk, seen a color or felt cold air on his skin. He had emerged from utter darkness to discover the pain and the joy of our world—and to begin to try to sort out what was going on. Good luck, Micah.

I was still swimming in the backwash of that reality when I had dinner with an old friend, Ginger. Something like a year ago she fell from a horse and smashed her head, fell into a coma, and very nearly died. This was the first time I had seen her since. She has recovered quite astonishingly, but—as she described it to me—she is still fearfully exploring her world, learning so many things that she once knew. Carrying on a dinner conversation, for example, has an element of novelty tinged with dangerous uncertainty. She cannot remember anything about her accident or the days that followed. She has, like Micah, the sensation of emerging from darkness, except she is discovering a world that she once knew.

How poorly I notice this amazing thing called life, at least compared to Ginger, who is finding out the fine points of daily living like a skater testing the ice. And though none of us remembers what Micah, and every baby, is experiencing, we all did once, and I suppose nothing we have experienced since has been so dramatic.

All of us will, I understand, one day enter a new world, where elements we remember (dimly?) have been transformed. I attended a funeral yesterday in which one of the relatives said that her mother, just that week, had looked forward to running again. She said it was difficult to imagine her 90-year-old mother running, but she had a photograph of her running down a Dutch sand dune as a child. That was what her mother imagined for herself.

Like Micah, like Ginger, we may be surprised and challenged as we emerge from darkness.

We Need Thanksgiving

November 25, 2014

I hate listening to the news these days, which is saying something because ordinarily I am a bit of a news junkie. I know I share this feeling. All the polls say that Americans are sick to death of ranting and blame. Yet they seem to increase, like nausea on a winding road.

It’s odd, because by some measures we are doing okay. The economy may not be great but it is much better than most. We survived the Great Recession. Crime is down. The flow of illegal immigrants is down. We aren’t fighting any major wars, and while we worry about events in Syria and Africa, they aren’t having much direct impact on us. Not yet, anyway.

And yet as a people we seem so bitterly unhappy, and preoccupied with blame.

I can trot out my favorite suspects and play the blame game with the best of them, but it’s monumentally unproductive. All sides have been ramping it up for years, maybe for decades, and all they seem to provide is more kvetching, more anger, more bitter denunciations.

I think it’s a spiritual disease. Not a political disease, one that can be solved by campaign reform or electoral victories for the good guys or constitutional jurisprudence or whatever your favorite recipe may be. I’m not denying there may be something in those recipes, but I don’t think the lack of them explains the sour mood and I doubt that the attaining of them will change this resentment. I think it’s a spiritual disease that we must all, one by one, family by family, group by group, deal with.

This coming holiday, Thanksgiving, is meant as medicine for this disease. It is only one day, intended for us to stop and be thankful. Deliberately. Thoughtfully. Prayerfully. Even joyfully. We really do have a lot for which we should be grateful.

Death and Disappearance

August 16, 2014

A friend of mine, Steve Morris, disappeared last week. He was in the Trinity Alps on my church’s annual men’s backpacking trip . On Saturday he and a few other men took a day hike to a nearby peak. On the way down, Steve got separated from the others. He never came into camp. Search parties have been looking ever since, using dogs, helicopters, GPS mapping. They scoured the area, which is not that large and not that rugged. (I’ve hiked there.) They found not a trace. Nothing. Not a footprint, not a water bottle, not a trail for dogs to follow. The sheriff called off the search this week, there being nowhere left to search.

It’s extremely unnerving. Steve is an experienced backpacker. He wasn’t despondent or depressed. Where has he gone? Why can’t they find some sign? Where is his body? Death itself is devastating to family and friends. Disappearance is worse. Earlier this year I read Rick Atkinson’s three-volume history of the western theater in WWII. He mentions how difficult it was for family and loved ones to deal with soldiers who went down in a ship or were shot down out of the air–who went missing. Family longed for some tangible proof of death, or at least a grave where they could mourn. Steve’s disappearance is worse by a factor of ten. No one saw him go. No one can say how he left.

I’m not sure I understand why disappearance is so upsetting, but I think it’s probably related to the insult that death poses in all its forms. It’s not just adolescents who expect to live forever. We all do. It’s really impossible to imagine that we will cease to be. Me! A known fact! My death seems as impossible as the moon blinking out one night.

At least when we see the body there’s some story of continuity we can tell ourselves. But it’s not a very convincing story. One moment, personality in full flower. The next, nothing but meat and bone. You are gone. That’s the aching surprise that greets anyone who watches a loved one die. They really are gone. That body left behind is not them, not much. It reminds you of them. But in reminding you, it reinforces the reality: they are no longer here, and you do not know where they have gone.

Is it easier to lose Robin Williams because we can still watch his funniest moments again and again on video? I don’t think so. I think it makes it harder. They remind us of him. They remind us that he will never again walk into a room.

Steve’s disappearance makes us feel this in a different, more bewildering way. We have nothing to mourn over, no focal point for our desolation. Truthfully, though, we never really do. Death obliterates all that in an instant. There is life, then there is no life. If you cannot believe in resurrection life, you are left with no reason to get up in the morning.